A CRITICAL VOICE LOST TO ETHIOPIA’S WAR ON INFORMATION
Reeyot Alemu has been imprisoned in Ethiopia for more than a year, branded as a terrorist. She is one of many journalists who have been arrested, interrogated and threatened in her country. What makes Alemu exceptional are her commitment to work for independent media when the prospect of doing so became increasingly dangerous, her refusal to self-censor in a place where that practice is standard, and her unwillingness to apologize for truth-telling, even though contrition could win her freedom. In jail, Alemu was offered clemency if she agreed to testify against journalist colleagues. She refused and was sent to solitary confinement for 13 days as punishment for her failure to cooperate. She is currently being kept at Kality prison, which is known for its filthy conditions. Recently, she has fallen ill; in April of this year she underwent surgery at nearby hospital to remove a tumor from her breast, after which she was returned to jail with no recovery time.
“I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future,” Alemu said in an earlier interview with the IWMF. “Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.” Alemu said one of her “principles” is “to stand for the truth, whether it is risky or not.”
To work for free media in Ethiopia is indeed a risk. The country has the second-highest number of imprisoned journalists in Africa, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, after notoriously oppressive Eritrea. Late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi publicly attacked non-state members of the press, calling them “messengers” of terrorist groups. Increasingly, “terrorist” is a label attached to any entity with an opinion on politics, social issues or human rights that does conform to government rhetoric. In the capital city of Addis Ababa, Alemu worked for numerous, often short-lived independent publications. At least four news outlets to which she contributed were forced out of business by the Ethiopian government. Her reporting explored the root causes of poverty, lack of balance in national politics and gender equality. In 2010, she founded her own publishing house and a monthly magazine called Change, both of which were shuttered.
In the months prior to her arrest, Alemu was slandered in government-run media for her reporting, a common tactic to intimidate journalists. According to a colleague, Alemu also received threatening phone calls. “Reeyot was able to speak about issues even the most mature and outspoken political opposition leaders were unable to voice,” said a friend of Alemu’s who works at an Addis University. “Until this day, she has…faced up to the challenges that many have bowed down to.”
Alemu taught English classes at an Addis high school. She gave part of her salary to her students from poor families. It was at the school that she was arrested in June 2011. Her home was raided by police and a number of her personal documents were seized. At the time, she was working as a columnist for independent daily newspaper Féteh.
For more than a week, Alemu was held with no indication as to why she was detained. Then, a government spokesman announced at a press conference that Alemu was one of nine people suspected of organizing terrorism. The terrorist group they were accused of abetting was unnamed and specific crimes were not cited. It was two months before Alemu and another journalist in the group of nine were formally charged.
Cover of Alemu's book titled "EPRDF's Red Pen", published in August 2012
Alemu is one in a number of journalists who have been prosecuted under the vaguely worded and broad-reaching anti-terrorism laws passed by the Ethiopian legislature in 2009. The laws allow for the arrest of anyone thought to “encourage” parties labeled as terrorists.
Under this law, Alemu was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined 33,000 birrs (about $1,850). Prior to her arrest, she made less than $100 per month at her teaching job and little more as a reporter. During her trial, government prosecutors presented articles Alemu had written criticizing the prime minister, as well as telephone conversations she had regarding peaceful protests, as evidence against her. In August 2012, an appeals court subsequently reduced the 14-year prison sentence to 5 years and dropped most of the terrorism charges against her.
The Ethiopian government has effectively limited media coverage to topics friendly to the ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), which holds more than 99% of seats in parliament. It has done this through charges of treason and terrorism levied against reporters and free media, public criticism of journalists and passage of laws that punish sources of information about opposition political parties and questions of human rights.
Alemu was willing to risk her freedom to challenge the standard explanations, or failure to explain, the systemic decay in her country. According to her friends and colleagues, she thought she could make a difference in the trajectory of her people; she thought her work might make things better. And now she has been silenced, like so many others.
“She is a person who has a bright vision for her country,” said a friend and former colleague based in Addis. “But, she is in prison.”